Over 50 countries around the world, including El Salvador, sell coffee. Like producers everywhere, Salvadorans hope to sell their coffee to the highest bidder. One of the obstacles to achieving that goal is getting the attention of those very buyers. With so many farmers around the world trying to get their coffee noticed, how does a small, specialty coffee producer in El Salvador, like Rivera Coffee, get on the map? How do farmers get the recognition they deserve amid the din of a world of coffee marketers?
In 2013, coffee rust, climate change and market instability took hold of El Salvador’s coffee industry. In a sudden blow, many farms lost upwards of 95-100 percent of their harvest to the aggressive fungus, putting the iconic industry in the balance and the lives of thousands of rural coffee families at risk. In response to this economic crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, the sustainable coffee program introduces cost-effective technologies and techniques to help producers rebuild their farms. Not only does the program work as a type of agricultural extension office, it also provides targeted investment, sales and marketing support.
One of the key components of NCBA CLUSA’s marketing strategy is how it helps small farmers build their brand, gain recognition and get themselves on the map. Through business roundtables, regional competitions, workshops and supporting events like the Salvadoran Coffee Council’s Cup of Excellence and Project Origin, NCBA CLUSA creates educational opportunities for farmers to learn how to improve their processes, access new markets and prepare for export. These types of events also serve to generate buzz in the world coffee circles and make international buyers stop and take notice.
In a country where rural farmers that have little exposure to the world of international sales and consumer trends, these types of events drive a type of continual improvement system in terms of the growing, harvesting, processing, marketing and export procedures. Farmers get their coffee cupped and learn how it scores in the international rating system. High-ranking farms then compete for “best in show” in a variety of categories. Despite the final score a farm receives, the experience of participating in these types of events enables them to speak in a more informed way about their coffee. They leave with a deeper understanding of how their coffee compares to other farms in El Salvador and they learn about which types of coffee are most attractive to different types of buyers.
“My father’s goal when planting Santa Rosa was to one day win 1st place in the Cup of Excellence,” said Jorge Raul Rivera III, co-owner of Rivera Coffee. Raul’s Santa Rosa microlot shocked the coffee world when it set a new record-breaking price at the Cup of Excellence 2017 El Salvador auction in May. At the auction, Rivera Coffee sold one honey-processed Pacamara microlot that scored 91+ and sold for over $95 per pound, a big jump from the previous record price of $50.10 in El Salvador. Japanese buyers Maruyama Coffee and Tao Coffee split the microlot with Korean buyers Pon Pon Coffee, Sarutahiko Coffee and Mesh Coffee.
“El Salvador is like a treasure chest of incredible specialty coffee, but it takes a keen eye for coffee to know where to find it,” Rivera said. Rivera’s Finca Santa Rosa is not your typical high-altitude coffee farm. The finca is located at approximately 1,600m. in the Alotepec Mountain Range, near the Honduran border. To the surprise of nearly all coffee connoisseurs that tour the farm, Raul keeps his young coffee plants tucked under the protective shade of towering pines. Coniferous forests are not usually associated with specialty coffee, and perhaps that’s what gives the coffee its unique allure.
Long time El Salvador Cup of Excellence judge Katsuhide Izaki is also a renowned Japanese buyer and owner of Honey Coffee.
“I have participated in the El Salvador Cup of Excellence as a judge every year for the past 10 years. I think that focusing on this country is very interesting and very important because specialty coffee is changing greatly every year, and I want to feel directly connected to that process,” Izaki said. “Another reason I’m interested in El Salvador’s coffee is the Pacamara variety. Pacamara was born in El Salvador; it has a unique, particular flavor and Santa Rosa only plants this variety. It has a very clean and very smooth mouthfeel and the acidity of an orange. I look forward to roasting Santa Rosa and selling it to my customers in Japan.”
Rivera added, “Events like the Cup of Excellence and achieving the Protected Designation of Origin, Café Alotepec, through Project Origin, are great tools for us to really start taking an inventory of what we currently have and what we have the potential to produce. They also help to educate more farmers on the high quality that they are able to bring to market. Support from NCBA CLUSA is important to bridge the gap between rural farmers and the international markets.”
Beatriz Alegria, NCBA CLUSA's marketing specialist, said she started coordinating small business workshops for farmers like Raul in October 2015. At first, she said it was difficult to convince farmers to participate because they didn’t understand the importance of events like the recent cupping.
"They didn’t realize that with a few adjustments to processing procedures and marketing techniques they could start getting the attention of international buyers interested in a high quality product, not just national commodity buyers," Alegria said. At the 2016 El Salvador Coffee event, 5 of the 8 farms NCBA CLUSA had been working with made it into the top 23 prize-winning finalists. In 2017, at the Cup of Excellence, 8 of the 13 farms made it into the top 24 prize-winning finalists.
"Each year we’re happy to see an increase not only in the number of farmers participating, but also in the quality of the coffee that they are bringing to the table," Alegria added.
While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change and market volatility have devastated the national coffee economy in recent years. The El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project will work with 7,500 producers and 50 producer organizations to transition farmland to rust-resistant varieties, introduce low-cost, sustainable agriculture techniques and improve business management practices, in an integrated approach to increase competitiveness, reduce environmental impact and improve worker health across the industry.
Learn more about the USDA-funded El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation Project.